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Editorial: Prostitution’s Real Victims; Rethinking Hartford’s Approach

Prostitution has long been regarded as a “victimless” crime arising from a consensual transaction between buyer and seller. A more nuanced and better founded view has gained traction in recent years — that there are indeed victims in many cases of prostitution and that those victims are the prostitutes themselves.

That law enforcement may not have kept up with this emerging consensus can be inferred from the sting operation undertaken by Hartford police at local motels last month that netted four women from southern New Hampshire on misdemeanor charges, including prohibited acts and aiding prohibited acts. As staff writer Sarah Brubeck reported, police received a tip that online ads were offering “escort services” at White River Junction motels, and the women were arrested when they arrived for appointments that had been set up by officers posing as clients. They are due in court July 29.

No doubt the Internet has facilitated prostitution, as with so many other illicit activities. Detective Sgt. Michael Tkac said that with the town’s proximity to Interstates 89 and 91, a large transient population and a number of hotels, Hartford police are increasingly dealing with the “fallout of prostitution,” and its close association with the illegal drug trade. The latter, of course, has been widely discussed this year in the context of what authorities say is a sharp rise in heroin use in Vermont, and the Hartford Selectboard has agreed to add more police officers to try to combat the problem.

But as with drugs, prostitution is not a problem that a community can arrest its way out of. One alternate approach is to provide the support services that can help women leave the sex trade. Peggy O’Neill, executive director of WISE, an organization that advocates for the victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, urges investigators to determine whether sex workers are victims of human trafficking. Of course, not all sex workers have been coerced, but by some law enforcement estimates, 85 percent of commercial sex workers in the United States have experienced some degree of force, fraud or coercion. They are often subject to rape and beatings from both those who profit from their work — properly called pimps — and customers, and the physical and mnetal trauma can be long-lasting. Tkac declined to say whether those arrested in Hartford had been screened for involvement in human trafficking, but one hopes that it is routine to do so. He did say that the women were provided information about services available to them, although it is ultimately up to them whether they avail themselves of the opportunity to get help.

Notable by their absence were arrests of any actual clients, which would seem to be a strategy more likely to discourage prostitution in an area like the Upper Valley, where the embarrassment quotient for local customers who have been arrested would be far higher than in the anonymity of a large city. It is interesting to note in this context that a number of countries are considering adopting laws like the one in Sweden, which perhaps delineates a fairer distribution of responsibility within the sex trade: It is illegal there to buy sexual services, but not to sell them.